More than 70% of Northern Ireland households will be living in fuel poverty by January as the cost-of-living squeeze tightens, a report has predicted.
The shocking figure emerged as the Assembly prepared for a sitting on Wednesday after SDLP MLAs called for a debate on the cost-of-living crisis.
The motion states that the Assembly “recognises the immense hardship facing people and families across NI caused by rising energy, fuel and food bills”.
The University of York’s social policy unit forecasts a fuel poverty level of 71.7% — the worst of all the UK regions, a stark contrast to the 18% recorded four years ago and significantly worse than the UK average of 55.8%.
The prediction equates to 551,000 households, or 1,419,000 people, struggling to heat their homes.
A person or household is defined as living in fuel poverty when they have to spend over 10% of their net income on heat and electricity.
On average, UK households will have to find an extra £40 a week to meet the cost of price hikes, the report said.
Since weekly wages are much lower in NI, that equates to a bigger chunk of salaries.
The University of York’s Professor Jonathan Bradshaw said NI’s higher use of home heating oil had affected the figures because the price of it had shown earlier and sharper increases.
The social policy research unit estimated that increases in the electricity and gas price caps in Great Britain in October and January would bring the average household energy cost to £70.57 per week, compared to £24.75 in 2019/2020.
The predictions take into account the impact on bills of the £400 energy rebate, although the mechanism by which it will be applied here has not been confirmed.
NI energy prices are not subject to the government price cap, with bills already increasing sharply.
Peter McClenaghan of the NI Consumer Council said: “Our research indicates that fuel poverty levels are getting worse in Northern Ireland.
“In 2018, it was estimated that 18% of all households in NI were in fuel poverty.
“This figure increased to 34% in early 2022, based on Consumer Council research, and was followed by an estimation from the Utility Regulator in March of this year that 50% of households in NI were in fuel poverty.
“With energy prices set to remain high, unfortunately it is likely that fuel poverty levels will also remain high.”
McClenaghan said energy bills were leaving consumers “worried, upset, and angry”.
He noted that in research published in March, people told the Consumer Council they were severely struggling.
They made statements including: “With all the price rises, and [being] very isolated over the last two years, my moods have been very low. I really need heat because of my health, and I can’t have it.”
Others were choosing between heating or eating.
Mr McClenaghan advised consumers to contact their suppliers for help with payment plans or meters, to think about energy-efficiency and to try saving over the summer to pay energy bills in winter.
He said: “The financial support announced by the Chancellor will help pensioners, people with disabilities and those on qualifying benefits.
“We know people are desperate for that support, and we would ask those who will receive these funds, if you can, plan for heating your home when deciding how to use the money you receive in July.”